Putting high school English language learners in separate content-area classrooms designed to target their linguistic needs can backfire, a new publication by a University of Washington College of Education professor reports, by stigmatizing those same students.

Dafney Blanca Dabach's article "'I am not a shelter!': Stigma and social boundaries in teachers' accounts of students' experience in separate 'sheltered' English Learner classrooms" details the catch-22 faced by the students placed in these classrooms.

On the one hand, Dabach said, schools have an obligation to address the needs of English learners, including access to a full curriculum with courses like social studies, mathematics and science. Without targeted efforts to address students’ linguistic needs, students may lack access to content that is vital for college access. On the other hand, addressing these needs through separate programs can have unintended effects. Dabach’s study found that students in separate classrooms appeared to internalize negative feelings: that separate “sheltered” placements meant they were less intelligent than their peers.

Dabach said one key takeaway from her work — which was cited in the Civil Rights Project's legal response to the U.S. Supreme Court case Horne v. Flores concerning the education of English language learners — is that school leaders must evaluate their efforts with a critical eye.

"Don't assume that just because your program targets English language learners’ opportunities to learn, it is actually having a positive effect in practice," she said. "Incorporate student voice into your evaluations of whether programs are working. Students notice when programs are seen as 'remedial' and this has potentially negative consequences for their futures."

Another key finding was the importance of individual teachers and their ability to observe disconnections between the purported goals of separate sheltered classrooms and students' perceptions of those same programs.

"Each teacher's orientation to the subtle but deep problems they noticed was consequential. This has implications for how students understand what it means to be labeled," Dabach said.

Dabach's article was published in the Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk and was highlighted in a recent edition of the "Marshall Memo," which selects the best new articles from scores of publications that are significant for school improvement.

While the teachers Dabach observed in her study worked in very different settings, she noted that they described similar phenomena regarding the stigmatization of youth.

"Yet at the same time each teacher responded to this stigma in very different ways," she said. "Seeing the variety of teachers' approaches affirms, once again, what complex work teaching is."

Dabach noted that research on separate "sheltered" classrooms is limited, and more work is necessary to understand how they work in practice so that schools can accommodate English learners and their right to have access to the full school curriculum.

In some cases separate programs for bilingual and immigrant youth have proven successful, Dabach added, citing the International Schools Network and its work with recent immigrants.

"We don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water," she said. "The main point is this: the way programs work in local contexts matters. What also matters is who teaches our students.”


Dafney Blanca Dabach, Assistant Professor of Education

206-221-4790, dbd1@uw.edu

Dustin Wunderlich, Director for Marketing and Communications

206-543-1035, dwunder@uw.edu